It's a bright Sunday afternoon, and just off jostling Leicester Square, where hawkers sell tickets for London's bawdy comedy clubs from deep within their jacket pockets, a more wholesome, winsome sort of comedy show is about to kick off. The monthly "Comedy Club 4 Kids" has packed in 150 ticket holders – from grade schoolers to grandparents.
Only half the comics on the bill have had to clean up their usual adult-angled acts. The other half of the comedians treading the boards this afternoon are kids themselves.
At this comedy club for kids and adults, the promise is: "Top quality comedy without the rude bits." That means no silly wigs or silly voices; no bodily function humor or jokes based on cartoons or computer games.
The show is the brainchild of James Campbell, a British stand-up comic who has made a career as a "comedian for kids." This afternoon he's playing compère – warming up the crowd, getting them grinning and guffawing with his all-inclusive brand of comedy.
First, he tackles "silly Olympic sports." "What's dressage?" he asks, "They only call it that fancy name because they're too embarrassed to admit it's really just 'horse dancing.' "
Next, he goes on to detail the categories kids can be grouped into: from "Angel," through "Good, Nice, Naughty," and on to "Bad," and the ultimate, "Evil," prompting groans from the grown-ups and cheers from the children.
Then he moves on to audience participation, posing the question, "What is your middle name, and what, exactly, is the point of it?" sending fits of laughter rippling through the audience.
This balance, it seems, is the secret to Campbell's comedy success: though billed as a kids' comedian, he's hitting on themes that appeal to everyone and shunning the usual kid stuff.
Instead, he delves headlong into rambling monologues, digressing and returning, offering observational humor with a strong sense of the surreal. He tackles parent-child issues, from both points of view. He tackles everyday issues, to which everyone can relate. And it's hard to tell who's enjoying it more, the 6- or the 60- year-olds.
With the audience in full chortle, Campbell brings on the first act of the afternoon: "Please give lots of love and warmth for the first-ever gig of our smallest, and possibly cutest, comedian, Finley Christie!"
The crowd goes wild as Finley, a 7-year-old Londoner, debuts beneath the bright lights cutting a sweet blond figure, with spectacles and a pair of preposterous fuzzy bunny ears.
"Hello," Finley says, gazing through the stage glare into the black auditorium. "Have you noticed what I'm wearing this afternoon?" he says tapping the bridge of his nose. "Yes, that's right. These are my new glasses." The crowd roars approval, boosting his confidence. His eyes light up, he giggles, and launches full force into his routine.
Though this is the first time Finley has performed to the masses, he perfected his routine earlier in the day, in front of a jury of a dozen of his peers, at Campbell's unique Kids' Comedy Academy. Here, kids come together to develop stand-up routines, under Campbell's watchful eye, getting professional pointers and encouragement. The guiding principle, says Campbell, is "not so much teaching, as herding. I set the tone, set some ground rules – like 'no heckling' and 'no throwing things' and then let them get on with it." He then offers the best of these bright young comics the unique opportunity of trying out their skills and skits before a real, live audience.
At today's Academy, each child has developed a five-minute routine. Even those who stumble over their punch lines are given supportive cheers and applause from Campbell and the other kids. Finley gets particular attention because he'll be performing in the show. "Maybe you could consider doing the bunny ear joke first," Campbell suggests gently. Finley nods.
"Don't worry when you come on stage this afternoon and you're blinded by the lights," Campbell adds. "It gets me every time."
Finley, however, doesn't seem too worried: "I think I'm really funny, and so does my mum." Closer to his debut, however, his confident tune changes. "I thought I was nervous," he confides, "but now I'm actually afraid."
As in his own comedy, Campbell encourages the kids to produce original material, rather than retell old jokes. "Just like adult comedians," explains Campbell, "most of the stuff the kids come up with stems from personal experience"
"I get inspiration from my hat collection," says Will Hutchinson, 10. "I've got millions of hats, and I find them really funny. I like to sit with a hat on at bedtime and think up jokes."
"I do a lot of political stuff," chimes in Eros Vlahos, 12. "Mostly about George Bush and Tony Blair."
"I like cows," deadpans Preston Nyman, 10, whose routine meditates on the possibilities for a cow-worshiping religion. "Thou shalt not," he proclaims, "worship any udder God."
Having recently become a first-time parent himself, though, Campbell notes that not all personal experience themes are appropriate. "I've realized I'm writing more 'Dad' material," he admits. "But if I carry on, I'm going to become one of 'them' rather than one 'us.' "
Campbell originally conceived of the Academy simply because it seemed fun. "But," he says, "kids seem to gain lots of extra things from the workshops that we weren't even intending them to. They become more confident in other areas of their lives. Some of them used to get into trouble at school for being the joker – often because they were wittier than their teachers – but they learn discernment, that there's the right time and place for being the comedian. They also learn how to watch, listen, and give constructive criticism."
"I was the class clown at school and always getting told off," affirms Eros. "Since coming here, though, I hardly ever do anymore."
Campbell's skill in handling the club and academy seems to come from his ability to identify with the younger generation. They see him, he thinks, as a friend, rather than a teacher, and there's a strong air of mutual respect. "I've always enjoyed working with kids, and started off in comedy about 13 years ago, telling funny stories at primary schools," he explains. "I then developed an adult stand-up show, but by 2004 the two things merged into the same show."
The show launched in London, then transferred to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with sell-out success. Since then, Comedy 4 Kids has toured successfully in all corners of the English-speaking world, including London's West End and on Broadway. Campbell's accompanying academy now runs in London, Brighton, and Cambridge, and plans are afoot to expand to New York. This fall, Campbell will take a solo version of Comedy 4 Kids on a two-month tour of the US.
Back on stage, Finley is busy progressing through a hilarious "million things to do with a scarf" followed by Easter observations. "If that was a Good Friday," he muses, "I wouldn't like to have a bad one." The crowd goes wild, and the houselights come up for the intermission.
At the back of the auditorium, Finley's mother greets him with a huge hug. "You were brilliant," she whispers. "I could never have done that, got up there in front of all those people."
"I know you couldn't, Mum," he smiles, bursting with pride, and adjusts an unruly bunny ear.
Campbell, too, is delighted with Finley's debut. "Lots of so-called 'kids' theater' is really aimed down at them; It's quite patronizing. But I think it's perfectly possible to do comedy for everyone. To see three generations in the audience together, with everyone laughing at the same thing together, is really rewarding. And really," he adds with a rueful grin, "much too rare."